[Documents menu] Documents menu

IRIN Interview With Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, President of Somaliland

UN Integrated Regional Information Network, interview, 28 May 2001


Somalis in the self-declared state of Somaliland, northwestern Somalia, will be asked on 31 May to vote on a new constitution which includes an article on territorial independence. Somaliland independence was unilaterally declared in May 1991, but has never received international recognition. The declaration followed the collapse of Muhammad Siyad Barre’s military dictatorship, which had pursued brutal policies in the north during the civil war of the 1980s. During a recent visit to the capital, Hargeysa, IRIN spoke to Somaliland President Muhammad Ibrahim Egal about independence, and the issue of past atrocities. A number of sites discovered in 1997 were identified by an international forensic team as having characteristics of mass graves, but no further investigation followed.

[Link to the IRIN WebSpecial ’A Decent Burial: Somalis yearn for justice’ www.reliefweb.int/IRIN/webspecials/somalijustice/index.phtmlfor more on the humanitarian consequences of impunity and human rights issues regarding Somali reconciliation. The WebSpecial includes personal accounts of survivors and witnesses, interviews with political players, and a resource section on UN and human rights material.]

Q: Is the referendum seen as a vote on independence?

A: Yes, the first article of the constitution establishes the independence and the sovereign status of the country, its borders and all. Once you have accepted that constitution, you have accepted Somaliland. So, indirectly, yes, it is also a referendum on the separation of the country and the renewal of [Somaliland’s independent] status.

... We don’t have resources, but we can give any observers transport and local accommodation while they are here—but they will have to get funding from their own government... We would like it to be a proper affair... It will be a very major undertaking, and we are trying to accumulate the resources for it. It is going to cost us about a billion and a half shillings, which is about a million dollars.

Once that referendum is over, and the constitution is approved, then the rest is a matter of routine—holding the general elections for local government. That will also inaugurate the multiparty system. We are authorising the registration of political organisations, not political parties, then we are holding elections for local government. We will borrow from the Nigeria experience: any organisation that wins at least 20 percent of the vote in at least four of the six regions in the country can qualify as a national political party. These will be the parties that will stand in the general elections for parliament towards the end of 2001. Then, in 2002 there will be the presidential elections.

Q: In terms of you standing again—Hargeysa is booming, there is stability and a free press, but still no international recognition. Does that constitute a success or a failure?

A: Originally, when I was elected in Borama [in 1993], one of the main reasons I was so unanimously elected and the whole country approved of my election, was the fact there was a sense that this man is a friend of the western governments and he is much more likely than anyone else to get recognition from them. That was an idea that has proven to be false. There are many people who like to construe that as a failure on my part. But I think the vast majority of the people don’t attribute it to me as a failure; rather each will give their own reason as to why there is this reluctance to recognise Somaliland. It is enmeshed with the quagmire next to us [in the south]. I think the vast majority of people in Somaliland still think I am the most likely man to put Somalia back on the road.

Q: Do you think it is important to investigate mass graves discovered in Somaliland now?

A: Yes, but... the international community is ambivalent over the affairs of Somaliland. When these graves were discovered, the facts of what happened to the people of Somaliland were well known—there was an attempted genocide... [yet] the international community has been somewhat reluctant to follow it up. It appears the discovery of the graves was somewhat embarrassing to the international community. I never understood why... Two forensic experts visited the mass graves and testified that atrocities had taken place in the area, and that these mass graves contained people who were summarily executed. From their report, a major investigation should have taken place to establish what happened, why it happened and who did it—not individuals, but to establish facts and figures.

But the international community, the United Nations, have flatly refused to provide funds for that investigation... I began to analyse, why this reluctance? Are they protecting Muhammad Siyad Barre? Well, there is no reason—Muhammad Siyad Barre is dead... I have now come to the conclusion that when this genocide was being executed here in Hargeysa and all over Somaliland, the international community watched with apathy. Nobody moved a finger to even object or condemn, let alone stop it. So, I think it is a sort of guilty conscience. If these things are investigated... indirectly the guilt of those who stood by and watched will be revealed too.

Q: The point of justice is to lead to reconciliation. Is that the aim?

A: We would have to start with the admission of error. The people of the south think we are telling a tall tale. They have no guilt about it. The people who were piloting the planes were taking off from Hargeysa airstrip and bombing Hargeysa, and Burao, and Berbera. They don’t think they were doing anything wrong... The closest they come to an admission of error is when they say they were following orders... The whole population in the [former Italian-ruled] south, regard [British-ruled] Somaliland as a bonus that was given to them in 1960 with their independence. They don’t regard it as an equal partner. That’s why the unification of the Somali people has failed, because of that superior attitude of we are the Somali nation—you are just splinter groups that are coming back home after the imperialist took you away for a period of time. But the history of the Somali people is [that] they have never had a central authority. We were independent tribes and we lived together in equality. We fought over water and over grazing now and then, but nobody ruled over anybody else.

Q: If an investigation goes ahead, how would it affect the status of existing administrations and the Transitional National Government [TNG, established in Mogadishu October 2000 following Djibouti-hosted peace talks—which were boycotted by Egal’s administration]?

A: It depends on the investigation. I don’t think an investigation would pinpoint any individuals. It might reveal the dates—for example, that people in a particular mass grave were killed [in] approximately June 1982, or 1985... Then the inference would be whoever was in charge at that time [was responsible]. There would never really be an accusation of an individual—and we don’t want to do that, anyway. We would like the world to know what has been done to us... That’s what we want to establish.

We don’t want to take anyone to court from any administration. And [the Somali interim president,] Abdiqassim [Salad Hassan,] and people like that will always point the finger at Muhammad Siyad Barre, who is now dead and gone... But it will establish for us an end, and end of this tragedy. We will have proven it, established it, shown it to the world, and we can then bury our bones, and move on.

Q: How would you handle the Somalilanders involved in that system?

A: ... There were those who were members, who held portfolios, but I don’t think they were in the know about what was happening here in Hargeysa, or about the instructions that the army and the special unit had. They [Siyad regime] copied the [Nazi German secret police] Gestapo, and established the NSS [National Security Service]—the instruments of oppression. The nearest Somalilanders who are here—for example, a few people from the Gadabursi [clan] and other people—were never really in the know. They were kept outside. Like our vice-president, who was a member of the intelligence group [NSS].

... There were many Somalilanders who were loyal to Siyad Barre, who worked with him—but I don’t think they [were] confidants in terms of what was happening in the north. As far as we are concerned... what happened has happened. We are not going to take anyone to task... We have opened a new page and we are going to move on from there.

Q: Some witnesses and survivors in Somaliland say they are nervous to talk about what happened because of those involved here. They say there was an official pardon to Somalilanders in the early 1990s, and that makes them worried to reveal all they know.

A: ... It is true that in the meeting in Burao in 1991 an assembly consisting of all the clans of Somaliland had been brought together by the SNM [Somali National Movement]. One of the first resolutions they passed is that everything is forgiven and forgotten. And it was the right thing to do, because at that time there were fingers being pointed at certain clans. If that had continued, the unity of Somaliland would have been completely undermined. So one of the first resolutions was that we were starting on a clean page, we are all brothers.

But there are some troublemakers. For example, when these graves were discovered—when very, very heavy rains revealed shallow graves—I went there. The whole of Hargeysa went there to look. I made a speech there. Some politicians—some of the former colonels of the SNM and all that—made capital of that and said: What is going to be done about this? How are we going to avenge these people?. And for a moment the atmosphere was very tense. I took the microphone and said to them: So whom are you going to wreak vengeance on? The people who informed upon them? The people who are standing here and sold them for a bundle of qat [catha edulis, a mildly narcotic shrub]? Or the people who pulled the trigger? Who is the guilty one? There was a hullabaloo... But I think among the people here in Somaliland there is a conspicuous lack of bitterness. Once the thing is established and it is recognised that we have been wronged, I don’t think anybody will look for revenge.

Q: From your point of view, is this a good time to investigate, when you have a referendum and elections coming?

A: I think when the elections come there will be some irresponsible politicians who try to make capital [of the issue]... to build up a case for these martyrs, as they call them. But as far as we are concerned we will not let it become a political issue.